Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis’ interview on the podcast “The Rest is Politics” with journalists Alastair Campbell and Rory Stewart

Alastair Campbell: Welcome to “The Rest is Politics” with me, Alastair Campbell…
Rory Stewart: …And me, Rory Stewart.

Alastair Campbell: And we’re in the office of the Greek Prime Minister in Athens, Mr. Kyriakos Mitsotakis.

And if there ever was a man who was going to end up as a politician, it was likely to be you, sir. Father Prime Minister, grandfather MP, great grandfather MP, siblings who’ve been mayors. So a very, very, very political family. And taking on a country that is, I guess, has a big up and down reputation through the entirety of history, but also through the modern times. But now is presenting a modern version of Greece, which seems to be politically, thus far, successful. So, welcome.

Kyriakos Mitsotakis: Well, thank you. Thank you for flying out to Athens for this interview.

Rory Stewart: Prime Minister, I was thinking about the extraordinary way in which your own family’s history is connected to the creation of Greece. We think, of course, of Greece, a lot in Britain, in terms of the great independence movement in the early 19th century, breaking free of Ottoman Turkey. But I guess your great grand uncle was incredibly important, in almost doubling the size of Greece in the period before and immediately after the First World War. Just to bring in international listeners, give us a little bit of a sense of that evolution and that incredible transformation into a modern country.

Kyriakos Mitsotakis: Greece was the first province of the Ottoman Empire to fight for and eventually gain its independence. Our war of independence started in 1821, against all odds. We succeeded with some help from allies, including Britain. We gained our independence in 1830. Of course, it has been a very interesting journey ever since, from a backward province of the Ottoman Empire into a modern European country with lots of ups and downs. The country grew a lot, as you pointed out, during the beginning of the 20th century. Eleftherios Venizelos, who was my great grand uncle, actually came from Crete. At the time, Crete was still under Ottoman occupation, a very visionary politician.

Rory Stewart: Prime Minister, just to interrupt for a second. He’s such an extraordinary figure because he sort of bridges a very ancient era and a very modern era.

Kyriakos Mitsotakis: He was a revolutionary who became a politician, a leader, a profound realist, a visionary reformer. He was the one who took the decision to put Greece with the winners of the First World War. He was the one who fought, before that, he fought two Balkan wars, he increased the size of Greece. And historically, there’s a historical irony that he was also the one who, in 1920, lost the elections, and then in 1923, was brought back to negotiate what was essentially a treaty of a defeated country, the Lausanne Treaty, which essentially created the context of the modern relationship between Greece and Turkey. So, a remarkable figure, some great biographies have been written by Michael Llewelyn Smith, who was an ambassador of the United Kingdom to Greece, he has written the first volume, and I’m eagerly expecting the second one.

Alastair Campbell: What about your dad? In power, then out of power, in exile. You spent some of your early years living in Paris, is that right? Because your father had to leave Greece. So just tell us his story.

Kyriakos Mitsotakis: My father was also a product of the generation of the Second World War. He fought during the resistance in Crete. He was a young lawyer. He was twice convicted to death, the first time his life was spared as a result of a prisoner exchange. The second time, the war just ended. And he was set free. He was a politician for his entire life. And when the junta took over in 1967, all mainstream politicians were put to jail. My family was put under house arrest.

Alastair Campbell: And you were born?

Kyriakos Mitsotakis: I was born a year after that. And then my father actually fled the country in August 1968. He crossed the Aegean on a very small boat in very difficult conditions. And he ended up in Paris. And then at some point, we were able to join him. So my first six years were spent in Paris until democracy was restored in 1974. We’re actually celebrating 50 years, as is Portugal for that matter.

Rory Stewart: So your father was, I guess, about 50 when you were born?

Kyriakos Mitsotakis: My father was exactly 50, yeah. I was the last child. I have three older sisters. According to my parents, I was not part of the family planning, but these things tend to happen.

Rory Stewart: What was he like as a father? Were you able to spend a lot of time with him in the first six years in Paris or was he very busy?

Kyriakos Mitsotakis: Well, obviously, I have vague memories of my father in Paris, and these are memories of a family that at the time was united, and my parents could spend a lot of time with me. That was not the case afterwards because my father returned to Greek politics. As a teenager, I remember the epic struggles between my father and Andreas Papandreou, then he became Prime Minister, so I didn’t have much time to spend when I was growing up in Greece. But we were able to form an extraordinary bond. Interestingly enough, as he became older, we spent more time together. And he passed away at the age of 99, and I feel very lucky to have had him in my life, although we had 50 years of age difference.

Alastair Campbell: You went off then to… You were educated partly in America, and then you were a banker and a financier. Was there any part of you that felt that being the child of somebody who had this political career and been Prime Minister, seen what it was like. Was there any part of that that put you off politics, or did you think it actually drew you into politics?

Kyriakos Mitsotakis: Well, probably both happened. I think you’re right to point out that when you have a strong family history, people expect you to enter politics, and so for some people, inevitable. But that was not the case for me. I did study political science and international relations at university. I was always fascinated by politics, but I would say intellectually. But then I lived through what my father went through as Prime Minister, and when he lost his elections in 1993, I told myself, I don’t want to do this. I felt rather bitter. I was also young at the time, and I said, Look, I’m going to have a career in the private sector. I went to business school, spent almost…

Alastair Campbell: Was he happy with that?

Kyriakos Mitsotakis: I think he was quite happy with that. He never pushed me to do politics. He always told me, “be happy with what you do”. I think at the time, politics was very, very far from my mind. I spent a decade in the private sector. At some point, I realised I was commenting a lot about Greek politics. I told myself, look, it’s easy for you to enter politics. You have a lot of name recognition. So if you really think that you can make a difference, you might as well give it a go. I became a candidate for parliament 20 years ago, in 2004.

Rory Stewart: Just before we move on, the personality of your father and the type of politician was, what did you learn from watching him, about politics? Do you sometimes reflect that he was a different type of politician to you?

Kyriakos Mitsotakis: He was and he had to be a retail politician at the time. He was elected in Crete, which means you need to know everyone on a first-name basis. There was a lot of clientelistic politics at the time. I’m not putting a value judgement on this, but this is the way politics was done. At the same time, he was also a visionary reformer who came to power in 1990, very much inspired at the time by the free market liberal ideology of the ’80s.

I think he tried to implement significant reforms. He did not fully succeed because he ended up serving only for one term. But he made tremendous comebacks during his career, and he was someone who passionately believed that you need to tell the truth to people. He was an anti-populist, and I think he certainly inspired me in that respect.

Rory Stewart: So there’s an echo, isn’t there? Because you also are somebody and we’ll get onto this, who came in and decided to implement some pretty dramatic economic reforms, much in the way that he did. But unlike your father, you managed to stay in office, win a second election. Is there anything, looking back at what your father did, that taught you lessons about what you need to do as a politician, if you’re going to try to bring in those kind of radical reforms without being defeated?

Kyriakos Mitsotakis: Certainly, looking back at his time in office, he had a majority of one. It does not help if you don’t have a strong parliamentary majority. It does make your life much more difficult. I think at the time, he tried to implement very bold reforms without making sure that these reforms were properly explained. Of course, when you implement reforms, you may end up with a couple of years where things are very difficult. Look at what happened, for example, with the reforms in the early ’80s in the UK. There was just no time for the economy to bounce back. Of course, he also had against him a politician who was very very capable. I think one mistake he made at the time was that there was actually a decision to take Andreas Papandreou to court, and that really polarised the politics and made maybe Papandreou come back stronger.

Rory Stewart: Tell us a bit about the Papandreou family and its legacy, and what type of politician Andreas Papandreou was as you look back in time?

Kyriakos Mitsotakis: Well, I never really met him, personally, but these were very divisive times in Greece, but Papandreou was a very charismatic personality. He was a proto populist. You talk a lot about populism, but Papandreou was a populist. He promised the moon and ended up doing the exact opposite. But he was also an intellectual and certainly a very, very skilled politician. But even when I look at how polarising the politics are now, even during those difficult years there were big divisions and we thought that they were at each other’s throats, but there was a certain level of respect. And politics was still played by the rules of the game.

I think things are much worse now in terms of the gloves coming off completely. Sometimes we forget any rules of basic civility in the political discourse. That was not the case. They were clearly opponents and nasty things happened, but I think things are much worse now.

Alastair Campbell: What’s your definition of populism?

Kyriakos Mitsotakis: My definition of populism is, first of all, promising solutions, easy solutions to complicated problems, so not being honest with people, drawing a fake distinction between the people and the elites, not fundamentally believing in the institutions of representative democracy and in the checks and balances that our democracies put in place, and placing a lot of emphasis on being a visionary leader who has this connection with the people and by himself or by herself, can magically solve all problems.

Alastair Campbell: Would you say that Greece, in recent years, had populists of the left and of the right? What similarities are between them? And what differences are there between them?

Kyriakos Mitsotakis: Absolutely. We were the first to experiment with populism. We actually brought the populists into power in 2015. If you look at the history of Greece over the past decade, we had a profound economic crisis, which started in 2009. But the crisis was unnecessarily prolonged because we elected a populist government in 2015, led by the radical left, by Alexis Tsipras, who in my mind is the definition of a populist politician.

But interestingly enough, they formed a coalition with a party that is actually to the right of my party, New Democracy. So you have the populist left and the populist right governing together. And when you look at the playbook of the populists when they come into power, it’s usually the same. They undermine, they challenge justice, they try to go after their political opponents, they go after independent institutions. So the question of the rule of law is usually undermined by these types of government.

Alastair Campbell: And when you’re speaking there, I suspect, like I was, many of our listeners may have had Donald Trump pop into their head. Because it seemed to me you are defining Donald Trump’s approach to politics.

Kyriakos Mitsotakis: Well, taking into account the differences of political systems, I mean, there are various examples of politicians that can be classified as populists. What is important is…

Alastair Campbell: What I was trying to do was test your political and diplomatic skills. And you passed the test…

Kyriakos Mitsotakis: I passed the test. I didn’t say anything. We have an election in the US, and I’m not going to comment on the outcome. But I think the point which is of greater interest to your listeners is what happens if the populists win for a second time? Then the erosion of the institutions becomes much more significant. Look at, for example, what happened in Poland and the difficulties that the current government has in addressing these challenges.

Alastair Campbell: Hungary?

Kyriakos Mitsotakis: Well Hungary, probably, is past the point where you can easily envision a democratic transfer of power. In our case, we did manage to defeat the populists at our first go, so they only had four years in power.

Rory Stewart: You’ve been in politics, actually, quite a long time now. You were elected to parliament some time ago. So you’ve seen this pretty dramatic transformation during your own political career. Why is it that 2014 we see Modi elected, 2015 Poland, 2015 Greece, 2016 Donald Trump, 2018 Bolsonaro in Brazil. What is it you noticed happening during the 2000s that created the conditions for this in 2014?

Kyriakos Mitsotakis: Well, let me make two points. First of all, the Greek situation was pretty unique. People tend to forget the dramatic impact that the economic crisis had on Greek society. We lost more than 25% of our GDP. This is the biggest contraction in economic history of any OECD country after the Second World War. I wouldn’t say it’s a miracle, but it pays tribute to the resilience of the country and the Greek people that we’ve been able to recover from this crisis. So in Greece, the conditions were there. People were desperate, they became much poorer. There was a significant backlash against the elites or the establishment parties.

So to a certain extent, I understand why they tried to experiment with something different. But coming back to your broader question, I think globalisation created a profound divide between those who benefited from it and those who felt that they were left behind. And those who were left behind, in terms of jobs, in terms of identity politics, expressed their need for someone to actually represent their voices. So the grievances upon which populists actually feed on are very real. But populism is not the answer.

But we need to understand that people vote for populist leaders for a certain reason. People aren’t irrational.

Alastair Campbell: I understand why you didn’t want to get into the Biden-Trump argument, but you did say that you felt Hungary had gone beyond. That was a big statement to make. You’re talking about a European Union country there, that seems to me to has been provoking the European Union and the institutions on which it depends. And yet, he’s still there, and he’s still provoking.

Kyriakos Mitsotakis: Yeah. Well, we’ve had our issues with Hungary, it’s no secret. I was instrumental in pushing the European People’s Party, our European political family, to expel Fidesz, Viktor Orbán’s party, from our group and the truth is that there are serious issues concerning the rule of law in Hungary. I’m not saying something that the Commission also does not acknowledge. And we need to use all our levers to ensure that the rule of law is respected. And this is what the European institutions are trying to do. Of course, as you know, decisions at the Council require unanimity, and that makes these negotiations sometimes rather complex.

Rory Stewart: I sometimes feel that we may be facing a much bigger global problem here, that in the mind of Viktor Orbán, his dream is a world in which strongmen, strongwomen, begin to dominate.

Alastair Campbell: Men, I think he means men.

Kyriakos Mitsotakis: Usually men.

Rory Stewart: And so maybe he has a fantasy world that he would hope that within a couple of years time Putin would be strong, Xi Jinping would be strong, he would be strong, maybe a populist, right-wing leader would be elected as the President of France. And then suddenly, the whole world begins to tip more in an authoritarian direction.

Kyriakos Mitsotakis: I think you’re right to observe that maybe some leaders believe that this is the case. I would actually argue, returning to the Greek paradigm, that this is not a one-way street. We’ve demonstrated that you can actually govern from the centre, that you can create a broad coalition that includes people who define themselves as right-wing, sort of patriotic voters, who can coexist with other people who define themselves as centrists, to focus more on the results-oriented policies that actually deliver for the people.

Because behind any authoritarian vision, there’s always the argument that we can actually do better for you, for the average people than these other types of elite-led governments. There are ways to actually prove them wrong. And the only way to prove them wrong is by demonstrating that these types of governments, which are vilified by the populists, can actually succeed at governing countries pretty effectively, and this is what we’ve done in Greece.

Alastair Campbell: Where would you sit on a British political spectrum for our British listeners? If you imagine the right wing of the Conservative party is over there and Jeremy Corbin is here. Where are you?

Kyriakos Mitsotakis: I would probably be governing from the centre. For your listeners to understand, I lead the main centre-right party in Greece. That would be the equivalent of the Conservative party. But I’ve pushed the party very much to the centre. And I have people within my party who would actually belong to the Labour Party, or they belonged to the PASOK, which was the equivalent of the Labour party. So I’ve been able to bring these people together without offending traditional voters.

Rory Stewart: One of the things that you’ve done, which seems very, very unusual, is you are somebody who seems to be socially-liberal and fiscally-conservative. And that this was the story in Britain around George Osborne, David Cameron in 2010. Like them, you pushed, for example, for gay marriage, but you’ve also been quite fiscally conservative in terms of controlling spending and borrowing.

And the story in Britain and the United States, and a lot of the world, from many polling experts, is that’s no longer possible. They draw these pretty quadrants on a board and they say that the whole of politics has changed and that there aren’t votes anymore in being socially liberal and economically conservative. And this is something that the US is obsessed with and President Biden is being shown in his polling, and President Trump is being shown in his polling. And in Britain, it was all about Boris Johnson’s 2019 campaign was trying to find more socially conservative, right-wing voters, who also wanted more government spending. So do you agree that you’re slightly bucking an international trend? And, if so, what’s the explanation?

Kyriakos Mitsotakis: I would argue that we’ve been able to implement a new type of “triangulation”. I would argue that we are fiscally prudent, but certainly pro-growth. We are not fans of austerity. And my big challenge was to stimulate the growth of the Greek economy, to bring in investment, to make sure that we deregulate in a reasonable manner, improve the productivity of the state. And that’s why Greece is growing significantly faster than the average of the eurozone.

But at the same time, we are always aware of the fact that we have a heavy debt burden and that the country went bankrupt, and that in order to restore our credibility on the international markets, we have to meet our fiscal targets. So this is different from the austerity policies that were put in place in the UK during the past decade.

But we’re also very responsible patriots. By responsible patriots, I mean that we manage migration, probably much better than many other European countries. We invested in defence. We managed our issues with Turkey.

And we’re also socially liberal when it comes to issues, for example, such as gay marriage, which was a difficult issue in Greece. It made some people within my party upset, and I fully understand that. And that’s why I never used the whip. And I let my MPs make up their own mind.

Alastair Campbell: There was no whip vote at all?

Kyriakos Mitsotakis: There was no whip. Two-thirds of my MPs voted for the legislation, a third did not. I fully respect it.

Alastair Campbell: And how was the role of the church in that debate?

Kyriakos Mitsotakis: It was important. The church was against it, of course. I recognised that the leadership of the church made its point, but we explained that this is a civil arrangement after all. We’re not interfering with the religious affairs of the church. There is no separation of church and state in Greece. We need to point that out. This is in our Constitution, and I don’t believe that this will change in the foreseeable future. So this is something which we did, I think it was important for a minority of Greeks.

And we are now moving forward with the rest of our reforms. But I would challenge you on the fact that I think that there is room to do this new “triangulation”. Essentially, what is it that brought us to 41%? It’s the ability to unite voters who are traditional right-wing voters, who care a lot about the more patriotic issues, with more progressive centrist orders. But the glue that brought all these voters together was a well-performing economy. At the end of the day, if the economy doesn’t do well, if the economy is not growing, if we don’t bring down unemployment, if we don’t bring up wages, then at the end of the day, it’s very difficult to create the environment for this political alliance to hold.

Alastair Campbell: You mentioned immigration there. How have you managed to… Because you have got the numbers right down. As far as I’m aware, you don’t have a plan to send asylum seekers to Rwanda…

Kyriakos Mitsotakis: No, absolutely not. Not what we have in mind.

Alastair Campbell: If the British government wanted to find a country that seems to have numbers under control and seems to have control of their borders. What advice would you give them? What could they see that you’ve done that maybe they could have thought of doing?

Kyriakos Mitsotakis: It doesn’t help to leave the European Union. I know you’re very sensitive about this issue.

Jokes aside, the European Union did agree on an Asylum and Migration Pact. A very important reform.

But before that, we’re a border state, and we were faced with a situation where essentially, the previous government had an open door policy. Anyone who wanted to come into Greece came into Greece. No questions asked. Whether it was our land border or our sea borders, we just became a welcoming committee. And we said, No, this is not going to happen. We need to protect our border. We’ll do it in a responsible way.

I need to remind your listeners that in March 2020, Greece was faced with the first wave of instrumentalization of migrants. When Turkey tried to push tens of thousands of desperate people across the land border, we defended our border. We’re building a fence, and we have been effective in breaking the smuggler’s model. We’ve made it very clear, if you want to come to Greece, there are legal pathways, but it is not the smugglers who are going to decide who will arrive on a Greek island. It’s us.

Alastair Campbell: So you need the legal pathways and you need the process.

Kyriakos Mitsotakis: You need to do two things. You need a big fence, and you also need a big door. By big fence, I mean you protect your borders. I’m unapologetic about this. At the same time, our Coast Guard has saved thousands of people at sea. But we will make it difficult for people to enter Greece. I’ve been very, very clear with that. We’ve worked with Turkey reasonably well in the past months, but at the same time, we also need legal pathways to migration because we’re doing, for example, a deal with Egypt now. We need workers in our agricultural sector. Our unemployment is coming down very fast, which means we’re faced with labour shortages. But we need to set the rules, and we need to know who’s coming into the country. We are offering legal pathways, and we make it very difficult for smugglers to continue bringing people, desperate people, illegally into the country.

Rory Stewart: Prime Minister, this is obviously one of the most touchy, difficult issues. And listeners will be aware also of the terrible, terrible tragedy with hundreds of people dying, and allegations against the Greek Coast Guard. But I don’t want to get pulled into that because I know you have a very strong position on that, and argue that wasn’t the Greek Coast Guard’s fault.

But the bigger issue, I guess, in Europe, is the fact that we are going to go into European elections in June, where in about a third of the countries of Europe, it looks like far right populist parties are going to get the most votes, and they will get it off the back of concerns about immigration. If you’re the AfD in Germany or any number of these other far right parties, their big point will be that the centrists do not have a grip on immigration, and that’s probably the thing that’s undermining the centrists governments most in Europe.

Kyriakos Mitsotakis: I think you’re right to point out that the immigration is a big concern in many European countries. Interestingly enough, it’s a non-issue in Greece because we’ve managed the problem.

Alastair Campbell: Is that not a populist statement?

Kyriakos Mitsotakis: No, you can ask people. People in Greece…

Alastair Campbell: A non-issue?

Kyriakos Mitsotakis: It’s a non-issue today. It was an issue back in 2019. If you go to the islands of the Eastern Aegean now, they are thrilled for two reasons. The first reason is that the numbers have significantly decreased. By the way, we have proper processes. We have proper asylum reception centres. People are treated in a humane manner. Those who actually make it, their asylum applications are processed very quickly.

Alastair Campbell: This is the bit the British government should be listening to.

Kyriakos Mitsotakis: But they’re also thrilled because we did a deal with Turkey, and we allow visa-free travel. The only exception to the Schengen rules for Turkish visitors to come to our islands for a week. Not exactly visa-free. It’s a facilitation. They get their visa on the spot. So that’s why it’s a non-issue, but it is an issue in Europe.

Rory Stewart: Why?

Kyriakos Mitsotakis: I’ll tell you why, because I think Europe was late to make this shift, which has actually taken place, to recognise that you cannot manage the migration issue without placing emphasis on your external borders. They thought it was a secondary problem. But if you don’t control the absolute number of people who come into the European Union, then it will become a problem not just for the frontline states. It will eventually become a problem for Germany, for Scandinavia, for those countries which are much richer and whose social welfare infrastructure acts as a magnet for those people.

Rory Stewart: Prime Minister, you will get people saying: “But you can’t control borders”. They will say, with the climate change, there are going to be hundreds of millions of people moving. And then there will be people even in the UNHCR arguing that borders are inhumane. How do you respond?

Kyriakos Mitsotakis: Well, I can tell you that if you look at what the UNHCR is telling us now, they’re pretty happy with what we’ve done. Because the previous conditions were horrible. At the time when we had open borders, we had 20,000 people in one camp, Moria, you may remember, on the island of Lesvos, in horrible conditions, children being raped. I mean, it was unmanageable, completely unmanageable.

So I think you need to set the rules. But at the same time, you need very bold agreements to offer people who want to come and work in the European Union legal pathways. You cannot just do the one without the other.

Rory Stewart: And let me just push again. To the vision that over the next 20, 30 years, there are going to be hundreds of millions of people moving around the world because of climate change, poverty. You actually think it is possible to control all this?

Kyriakos Mitsotakis: I’m saying that maybe there are situations where it is, who knows what can happen and what sort of crisis may emerge. So there’s also the third part, is what do we do about, and you’re a big expert on this, what do we do about making sure that people in Africa have more opportunities in Africa. The truth is, we’ve not done enough. But Africa is a booming continent. You have the biggest population explosion in Africa. And how do we offer the young Africans more opportunities to stay where they live? They don’t move and travel because they want to, they do so because they’re desperate.

Alastair Campbell: Can I just ask you about Europe and the whole issue of those countries that want to join, and they probably do see you as a bit of a blocker. I mean, I felt very, very sorry for the Macedonians, having to change their name, go through all sorts of hoops, and then they’re still not any further forward. You may know, I do some work with Edi Rama in Albania, and I think they sometimes feel that you’re very, very pro-European up to the border. So what’s your vision for a broader Europe?

Kyriakos Mitsotakis: I’ll challenge you on this because we’ve been big proponents and big supporters of the Western Balkans joining the European Union. It is in our interest, after all. This is our immediate neighbourhood. We’re the first country to join the European Union, relatively wealthy compared to the Western Balkans, members of NATO, members of the Eurozone, members of Schengen. So we actually want the….

Alastair Campbell: Well, they feel they are going backwards, don’t they…

Kyriakos Mitsotakis: Yeah, but I don’t think that’s Greece’s problem. And you referred to North Macedonia and the name change. Again, I had some issues with the Prespes Agreement. I had some real issues with the Prespes Agreement, which was agreed by the previous government, but I respected it. And we’ve been trying to work with North Macedonia to help them in the European journey. But getting closer to Europe, means respecting the European acquis and means to making progress on issues regarding the rule of law.

Rory Stewart: I think one of the things, of course, in the centre of the West Balkans that people are very very concerned about is relationships between Serbia and northern Kosovo, Serbia and the Republic of Srpska. Real anxieties that we may be teetering on the edge of replay of bits of the Bosnia-Kosovo wars. And I feel that if we had been more generous and more active and more rapid about bringing those countries into the European Union, it would have been much better for European security.

Kyriakos Mitsotakis: The Thessaloniki Declaration of 2003, that was 21 years ago, for the first time mentioned the need to bring the Western Balkans closer to Europe, but we’ve not made enough progress. There’s a new momentum now, also as a result of Ukraine, and we need to seize it. That’s why we need to reward the countries that actually make more progress. You mentioned Serbia. Serbia is fundamental for the stability of the Western Balkans. I cannot imagine the Western Balkans being anchored to Europe without Serbia being part of Europe, they’re the largest country, the largest economy. Of course, they’ve been sitting on the fence, so we need a proper set of incentives and disincentives to push Serbia in its European direction.

Rory Stewart: But it requires Europe to take risks. It requires Germany and France to be bold. One of the problems is you can always hide behind the acquis and say “they haven’t ticked this box, they haven’t ticked that box”.

Kyriakos Mitsotakis: First of all, one of the things that we will eventually do in the next European cycle is to rethink the enlargement process. And what does it mean to actually become a member? What are those, maybe intermediary milestones that we can set for those countries in order for them to understand that as they make progress, there will also be benefits. Because right now, we have to be honest, people in the Western Balkans don’t believe that they will be part of the European family. This is a big problem.

Alastair Campbell: I think they did a few years ago.

Kyriakos Mitsotakis: Probably less so now. There are some countries, Montenegro, for example, is making progress. We need to reward them. It’s not just a stick where we go with a big check list and tell them that they don’t do well. We should also remember, let’s look at our own stories. Greece joined the European Union back in 1981. Would we tick all the boxes now? I mean, I think it was a political decision that was taken at the time with the great support of Giscard d’Estaing, Germany was hesitant. The country was coming out of a junta. It was more of a geopolitical decision and less of a technocratic decision. But at some point, some progress needs to be made. But I hear you when you say that some bold political decisions will have to be taken at some point.

Alastair Campbell: Can you foresee a day when the United Kingdom is back inside the European Union?

Kyriakos Mitsotakis: Well, all of us, some of us, again, my first European Council was the last Council in which a British Prime Minister was present. And that was only for a very brief period of time. But I personally think that it was a mistake for everyone, obviously for the United Kingdom to leave Europe. We made it very clear that we respected the decision, but it doesn’t mean that we actually think that it was good either for the UK or for Europe. I don’t know whether in decades this could happen again.

Alastair Campbell: You think it would be decades, plural?

Kyriakos Mitsotakis: I think, well, it’s going to take… Well, first of all, it would have to be your decision, I mean, the decision of the UK government and the UK people. But there are certainly things we can do with a UK government that is interested in engaging with us in a further rapprochement, that will, of course, respect the European rules. You cannot have your cake and eat it.

I think the people who voted for Brexit, and sorry if I’m a little blunt here, must have realised that because they were promised that they would actually leave the European family, but have all the benefits of continuing to trade with Europe as if nothing had happened.

Alastair Campbell: So it was populism?

Kyriakos Mitsotakis: Of course, it was.

Rory Stewart: Would you be encouraging and supportive if the new incoming Labour government began moving, for example, towards rejoining the European customs union?

Kyriakos Mitsotakis: Yes. I would certainly, and I think quite a few of us at the European Council would look forward to resetting our relationship with the UK, taking into consideration that Brexit has happened.

Alastair Campbell: I was in a cafe this morning, talking to someone who lives here and said that I was going to be seeing you, what should I say? And she said, ask him whether there’s actually any populism in his politics? And interestingly, yesterday we spoke to Kwasi Kwarteng, who was famously, who was very briefly the UK Chancellor under Liz Truss. And he was saying that he thinks politics today is impossible without a bit of populism. So I just wondered if there’s anything that you feel you do or say that is populist?

Kyriakos Mitsotakis: For me, being an anti-populist is trying to be brutally honest with people. I think we’ve delivered on our electoral promises when I look back at 2019. I think that’s the reason, the primary reason why we were re-elected. We did what we told people we would do. We acknowledged our mistakes.

Alastair Campbell: So, that’s a big part of populism, that you never admit you’re wrong. When you say you admitted your mistakes, such as?

Kyriakos Mitsotakis: There were issues, and I was very, very frank. Issues, for example, when it came to we had a wire-tapping scandal. I was very honest that something went wrong.

Alastair Campbell: This is when you found that…. was it a journalist at the start?

Kyriakos Mitsotakis: Yeah. I made changes. I said, something went wrong here. There was a systemic failure. We had a horrible train accident, where we had human errors which were compounded by systemic failures in our railway. And I said, I cannot bring those people back, but I can do my best to ensure that our railways are going to become safer.

Alastair Campbell: And is that taking down the privatisation route?

Kyriakos Mitsotakis: Well, the railways were already, interesting enough, the railways were already privatised by the leftist government. That happened back in 2018.

Alastair Campbell: Yes, another failed privatisation?

Kyriakos Mitsotakis: Well, but the network itself is still state-controlled, so it’s a hybrid model, and we are the ones actually investing in the network. When I make a mistake, I have no difficulty acknowledging it. And I think a mistake only becomes a real mistake if you repeat it. So try to learn from our mistakes. I don’t think I’ve promised things which I consciously knew I could not deliver. And sometimes, even difficult things.

For example, right now, we’ve passed legislation regarding self-employed Greeks which are a core constituency of us. At some point, we noticed that many self-employed groups were actually declaring income, annual income, under the minimum wage. We said, Well this can’t really happen. So we set a threshold. I told people I would do this before the election. I said, I would go after tax evasion. It’s so much easier when you don’t have to look back at what you told people during the campaign and realise, “Oh, my God, I have to do the exact opposite now, and I sort of knew I would have to do the exact opposite”.

Rory Stewart: Prime Minister, another strong criticism from people is sometimes around the issue of press freedom. What’s happening with press freedom, why are people anxious about press freedom?

Kyriakos Mitsotakis: There I feel very strong. Anyone can write or publish or say anything they want in Greece. And if anything, probably we have relatively weak libel legislation. And I get all those SLAPP arguments. I’ve never, ever used the courts if I felt that I was offended because I’m a politician and the threshold needs to be higher in terms of the criticism. But for Christ’s sake, we have so many newspapers in Greece, we have so many TV stations. Every TV station you see, you always have the opposition being present.

I think this is an argument that simply is not true. And the things that are published in Greece, in some of the newspapers, they could never be published… I mean, slander, I’ve been accused of being a paedophile. I mean, these are things which are actually printed in Greece. So no, there is no press freedom issue in Greece, full stop, and I’m adamant about that.

Alastair Campbell: The other thing that these people are saying today is the brain drain. Do you still have a brain drain problem? And is the privatisation of the universities, is that an attempt to stop the brain drain, or does it accelerate it?

Kyriakos Mitsotakis: Well, we’ve had around 500,000 Greeks who left Greece during the financial crisis. Primarily young people, talented people, risk-takers. It’s not easy to leave a country in search of a better job. Those are also the years of very high taxation on anyone who made a decent wage. This has been reversed. A lot of people are coming back. They’re coming back because there are more opportunities, there are better paying jobs, taxation is low. But I think they’re also coming back because many of them, not all of them, of course, believe that the country has turned the corner for good. It’s not easy. I was working in the UK back in 1997, at some point I decided…..

Alastsair Campbell: Great year!

Kyriakos Mitsotakis: Yeah, I know. You remember that very fondly. But for some strange reason, it was actually the moment Labour was elected that I decided to leave. So I returned to Greece. And I remember you return not only for the job. You return because you believe that there is a good long-term potential in terms of how the country will do. So the brain drain is being reversed. There will always be people who leave, and it’s only natural.

I mean, this is a global world, but we offer more people opportunities. When I talk to the big companies that invest in Greece, now, foreign companies, for example Pfizer had set up a big data centre in Thessaloniki. They’ve hired more than a thousand people. A significant number of the resumes that they receive are actually from Greeks who want to return. So if you get a good job in Greece, everyone wants to. I mean, people want to come back. This is a great place to live.

But of course, we need to address issues regarding the quality of our health care, the quality of our education. These are real issues. Social services are improving, but not as fast as we would like.

Rory Stewart: Like everybody else, one of the big anxieties is around productivity. Certainly, the experience in most European countries is we spend all our time saying we need to sort out our productivity, and all the smartest economists in the world come up with ideas and productivity doesn’t improve as quickly as people would like. What’s the issue? And why is productivity – it’s no particular criticism of Greece, and it’s catastrophic in the United Kingdom-, but what is it about these economies that makes it very difficult to turn productivity around?

Kyriakos Mitsotakis: Well, first of all, I’d say in Greece, there were a lot of low hanging fruit when it came to productivity. For example, phase one of digitising our state, simplifying the interaction between citizens and businesses. We did that, and it was a huge success. It improved. It does improve your productivity if you’re a small business, and you don’t have to stand for hours in a line trying to interact with the state. There are basic things that needed to happen, and they’ve happened. And this has been a true revolution, and people across the board, regardless whether they vote for us, give us credit for this digital transformation.

But now we’re going to look at the future. Is AI going to be a huge booster? Can it be a huge booster of government productivity? How do you run a government more efficiently? What does it mean for the productivity of your civil servants? How do you implement proper personnel assessment and remuneration schemes? All these things were relatively new for Greece. I think there is a lot of catching up to do when it comes to productivity, and we’re moving on that path.

Then, of course, those countries that will embrace AI as a true tool for public policy, also managing risks. We can talk about the risks, there are numerous risks. But when I look at AI, from a government perspective, I see lots of significant opportunities. For example, AI in wildfire protection, and prediction of what a wildfire will do. We’re entering our wildfire season now.

We use AI, for example, now to go for targeted, go after systematic tax evaders. We can talk for hours about what AI can do to improve the productivity. Because we’re passionate about data-driven public policy, of course we have to use AI when we implement the policies we think are right.

Alastair Campbell: Can I go back on something that predates AI by many, many centuries. Was it the last time you were in UK when you did what I thought was a rather fairly standard line to take on what you call the Parthenon Sculptures and we call the Elgin Marbles, as a result of which our Prime Minister decided not to see you the next day. I just wondered what you thought of that?

Kyriakos Mitsotakis: I think you’re right to point out that I did repeat what is our standard argument in favour of the reunification. I don’t use the term return. I think it’s important for people to realise that we’re talking about bringing one monument together in its unity. I use the Mona Lisa example, which I think is relevant. You can’t have cut the Mona Lisa in half, and half of it removed, half of it with the British Museum, but this is exactly what happened with the Parthenon Sculptures. You just need to take a look at the Acropolis Museum to understand why it is important to see them united and in situ.

So I basically said what I always do, but I guess this caused some sort of reaction and my meeting was cancelled at the last moment. But, these things happen, and it’s certainly not going to affect the bilateral relations between the UK and Greece.

Alastair Campbell: When you say these things happen, well, I thought it was pretty extraordinary…..

Kyriakos Mitsotakis: Well, the truth is, it had never happened to me before, but in that sense maybe they don’t happen very frequently.

Rory Stewart: And it’s very strange, isn’t it, because in some ways, on the surface, some people would have thought that Rishi Sunak might be somebody with whom you’d have something in common. He’s very bright, he had a background in finance, he’s quite technocratic, he’s quite interested in AI and data. You would have thought that you had a lot in common.

Kyriakos Mitsotakis: Well, to be very honest with you, I was looking forward to sitting down and having a discussion, and we made it very clear that the bilateral meeting would not be about the Parthenon Sculptures. I’m sure there would have been a lot to talk about, so I don’t know whether I’ll have an opportunity to, maybe I’ll meet him at some point and we can catch up.

Alastair Campbell: You say that it doesn’t affect bilateral relations, but they are partly about personal relations. That was him, I think, having a petulant, childish response, which you’d be a very, very forgiving person if you didn’t hold that against him for some time, in my view.

Kyriakos Mitsotakis: We have such a great relationship between our two peoples and our two countries. This is what I have to do, frankly. I mean, not to hold it, not to take it personally. I think one of the things you learn in politics is, I mean, sometimes you need to leave your personal preferences or your personal opinions outside the room. But this is about the relationship between countries which have been great friends forever essentially. So I focus a lot on this relationship. I’ll leave that behind.

Rory Stewart: Let’s develop, just as we come towards the end, this other side of your personality, that is emerging as a politician and the way that you’re, I’d see you very strongly resist the idea of being populist, but equally, as a politician, you have to be popular. So you’ve been on a journey, I suspect, from being seen as a relatively, people might have perceived you as a relatively dry, serious person coming from the world of finance to becoming more of a retail politician. And one of the things you’ve done is you’ve embraced TikTok. I’d love you to think a little bit about what you’ve learned about this, about how, even if you’re a centrist, even if you’re anti-populist, you still have to communicate, you have to have emotion, you have to have a sense of humour. It can’t really all be about sharing think tank papers from Sweden.

Kyriakos Mitsotakis: I was accused of being, sometimes being too intellectual and maybe not someone who can easily communicate with people. I always thought that this was wrong. But it took me a lot of time and effort to bridge that gap and change that perception.

One way of doing it is to really spend a lot of time on the road. And I love what we call retail politics. I do. I like campaigning. I like going out. It’s not a burden for me. I learn, I try to engage. I’m trying to become better at engaging with people. You know, you do hundreds of handshakes every time. And this maybe a 10-second interaction with someone, and you do many of those, but for that one person, it’s maybe a once in a lifetime opportunity to meet the Prime Minister, so you’d better be there and be in the present. And it can be pretty draining to do that properly.

At the same time, TikTok was a revelation in the sense that it allowed me to show a side of my personality, that everyone who knows me well, knew it existed.

I think I have a decent sense of humour. I don’t take myself always very seriously. I can talk about other things and not just politics. I consider myself to be a pretty normal person in terms of my interests. I have a life outside politics. I will have a life after politics. TikTok gave me that opportunity to show that side of my personality.

Interestingly enough, it sort of worked for me. Other people have tried it, it was a complete failure, because maybe it didn’t suit their style. It doesn’t necessarily have to be TikTok. TikTok was maybe the social media tool of the day. Maybe tomorrow it’s going to be something else.

But is there a side of us that people actually want to get to know? Yes, for the first time, I sense that people understood who I really am, not just a politician, but also the person. I think it is important for people to understand that behind the office and the pomp and the glamour, we’re people. We have our issues, we may have our problems, we have bad days, we have good days. At some point, we try to do our best in what many people think is sometimes what they may consider an almost impossible job.

Alastair Campbell: Do you worry that somebody who’s getting to know you through TikTok, that that is their only interaction with politics, and that therefore it fuels this sense of political disengagement from what you and I know politics really is about, which isn’t just short videos.

Kyriakos Mitsotakis: I think that’s a great point. But if my TikToks were only about humour, you’d be right. But what is the trick? The trick is you get people engaged, but then you also communicate serious messages. You can communicate a serious initiative in a one-minute video. I have to respect the fact that maybe the attention span is one minute, rather than one hour. Like, maybe not everyone is going to sit through this very interesting…

Alastair Campbell: You’d be amazed just how many people will watch this… right to the end…

Kyriakos Mitsotakis: I’m happy that they do. But even if they have the minute, I can use that minute to tell them something that is important to them. So it’s not just backstage. This is maybe the trick to get people engaged, but it is also an opportunity for people to understand who we really are.

Rory Stewart: So my final question is: You do represent a very appealing type of politics to me. And I come from the centre right, I admire your policies, I admire your social-liberal policies, I admire your economic policies, growth policies. I even enjoy what you do on social media. But there is a sense that sometimes this kind of centrist politics can look like a bit of an endangered species. So I’d be interested in seeing what is your manifesto for saying how do we prevent, in the United States and Europe, ever more polarised, ever more populist policies, driven by some pretty deep structural factors which give an advantage to populism over centrism.

Kyriakos Mitsotakis: It may be arrogant or presumptuous of me to try to draw lessons that could be universally applied from the Greek experience. For example, in Greece, we have an electoral law because electoral laws are absolutely critical -and not recognised in terms of producing or not producing political stability. We have a majority in Parliament, which means we can move quickly. Sometimes I look at my partners and they have four, five, six coalition partners and I tell myself, Oh my God, how will they make decisions? And this also makes running the government much more complicated.

Rory Stewart: And for geeky people, the electoral law is that if you get most votes, you are able to get another 50 seats.

Kyriakos Mitsotakis: You actually get a bonus. You need to be above a certain threshold, and then you also get a small percentage of the seats are not allocated proportionately, they basically go to the first party. We were at 40%, which is still a very high threshold. Not many parties are at 40%, but-

Alastair Campbell: In the UK that gets you a decent majority.

Kyriakos Mitsotakis: With 40%, we were able to get a reasonable majority. If we were at 35%, we would not be able to do that. So I think it’s a good system, it has served Greece well. But I think that when I look at the European People’s Party, because we have European elections, Yes, I think there are lessons that we can learn from Greece. And this triangulation, I spoke about, I think it’s something I share with other leaders who are trying to win elections. We have many more members of the EPP, so the centre-right family at the Council now, we may get up to 13. We were fewer five years ago.

So I think if the EPP, the centre-right, does well within the European context, and if nothing can happen at the European Parliament without the reasonable centre-right, sort of agreeing to it. I think this will be important for Europe going into our next cycle. So I’m not pessimistic about the future of reasonable, data-driven, results-oriented policies. If anything, maybe people can look at the Greek example and be, at least feel a little bit more optimistic about their chances in fighting the populists.

Alastair Campbell: So my final question, I can see behind you some pictures of you and your family. Are your children likely to go into politics?

Kyriakos Mitsotakis: I don’t know. My daughter is 27, my son is 26, and my younger daughter is 21. They’re all, I think they’re active and engaged as citizens. I would give them the same advice that my parents gave me. You do whatever makes you happy, but realise that at some point, first of all, politics is not just about elected politics. The biggest problem we’re faced today in politics is the fact that the younger generation, the bright people, don’t want to go into politics. It’s a fact. Politics is not attractive, and it has a lot to do with the toxicity of the public debate. People are just not willing to go through the social media crucifixion of your public life, your personal life, your private life. My family, these are the true heroes because they don’t get…. They have, their careers, my wife’s career, or my children’s careers, may be restricted by the fact that I do what I do because they’re politically exposed personnel. So this, at the end of the day, is a family decision. You cannot do politics unless you have your family behind you and I’m very grateful to my family, to my wife and my kids, for the support they’ve given me.

But this brings the broader question, we will have the opposite. We already have the opposite problem. The best and brightest, unlike what happened, for example, after the Second World War, are not interested in politics, and we need to make politics, again, relevant and attractive for those who really feel that they can make a change. Maybe not everyone feels that they can change the world. But sometimes small changes, many small changes can make a big change, and things can change in politics.

This has been my experience, and this is what gives me the energy to wake up every morning and to come to the office. Because sometimes, there are days when things appear very desperate, but there are many days where you feel you can actually make small changes that impact people’s lives towards the better.

Alastair Campbell: I want to ask you a final, final question. When you are touring the world, meeting the world leaders and going to the European Summits, or NATO summits. When you walk into the room with other leaders, do you feel that in general you are meeting anti-populists or populists in positions of power?

Kyriakos Mitsotakis: I’d say that, speaking of the European Union, because we have a very strong interaction at the level of the Council. We get to know each other very well. We remind people that we’re in the European Council by ourselves, there are no advisors, 27 of us. We have to make the decisions. I’d say my colleagues are overwhelmingly, reasonable and competent leaders, trying to do the best for their people. OK, there may be exceptions, but this is my experience. I’ve participated in many, many Council meetings now. I’m getting to be one of the more experienced Council members. Certainly, this is how I feel. These people, they care about what they do, they care about their people. They also care about Europe because you have to be able to do both in order to reach European decisions.

Alastair Campbell: Well, thank you for giving us so much of your time.

Kyriakos Mitsotakis: Thank you. Thank you and enjoy the rest of your stay in Athens. Maybe you’ll convince some of your listeners to come to Greece to spend their summer holidays. The country is offering great opportunities for nice holidays. That was always the case, but it’s even more so now.

Alastair Campbell: However, they won’t be able to stay here. They won’t be able to work, travel, and live freely as they used to be.

Kyriakos Mitsotakis: They may have to go through immigration checks, but I guess it’s a price to pay for decisions that were made.

Alastair Campbell: But I’m over it!

Rory Stewart: He’s over it!

Kyriakos Mitsotakis: Thank you again for this very interesting discussion.

Rory Stewart: Thank you so much. Thank you.